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End Game: TV’s Best and Worst Series Finales

From ‘Lost’ to ‘The Sopranos,’ these are last episodes that got it right — and very, very wrong

James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Robert Iler,

James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Robert Iler, in the last episode of 'The Sopranos.'

HBO/Everett Collection

Don Draper will fall out of a skyscraper window, turning those ominous opening credits into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don Draper will be revealed to be airborne-heist legend D.B. Cooper. Don Draper will wake up next to Suzanne Pleshette, who’ll tell him it’s all been a dream. Regardless of how Mad Men goes out next week — with a bang, a whimper or a sudden cut to black in the middle of a Journey song — Matthew Weiner’s canon-worthy TV show will be judged by whether its finale sticks the landing or not. For better or worse, how a series handles its last hurrah can often determine its legacy: A great send-off can gain it entry into the television equivalent of Valhalla. Slap a cop-out ending to a beloved show, however, and you’d better be prepared to kiss seven or eight seasons of good will goodbye.

So as we brace ourselves for what is sure to be a hotly contested and endlessly analyzed last hour of Mad Men, we look back at a handful of the best and worst series finales of the past few decades. Some are textbook examples of how to bow out as gracefully as possible; others are perfect cautionary tales of last-episode pooch-screwing; and a couple remain so divisive that it’s likely we’ll be debating them until the end of time. (Did Tony Soprano actually die in that last moment? And does it ultimately matter one way or the other?) Regardless, these are the notable showstopping installments worth studying as a way to do it right — or very, very wrong.

(And yes: Here There Be Spoilers. Tons of them. You’ve been duly warned.)

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THE SOPRANOS, James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Robert Iler, 'Made in America', (Season 6, episode 21, aired June 10, 2007), 1999-2007, photo: ©HBO / courtesy Everett Collection

HBO/Everett Collection

Worst: ‘Lost’

When the time came for this sprawling sci-fi mystery about airplane-crash survivors stranded on a mystical island to cough up the answers to its countless questions, Lost largely balked. But as frustrating as that was (we still don’t know who shot at the outrigger — maybe it was the missing Russian from The Sopranos?), the series finale committed a far worse crime: It revealed that the “flash-sideways” storyline, in which the main characters lived in an alternate world where they’d never crashed on the Island, was some kind of corny new-age afterlife. In other words, half of what the audience had spent the final episodes watching literally never happened. “We have to go back!” may have been the series’ most famous catchphrase, but this short-sighted decision makes the series hard to happily revisit.

James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Robert Iler

James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Robert Iler, in the last episode of 'The Sopranos.'

HBO/Everett Collection

Best: ‘The Sopranos’

This is the big one. When the final scene of the final episode of the show that launched the New Golden Age of TV abruptly cut to black — without revealing if mob boss Tony Soprano lived or died, and without letting Steve Perry finish the chorus of "Don't Stop Believing" — the result was, in the words of Paulie Walnuts, "fuckin' mayham." Was Tony executed by the mysterious man in the Members Only jacket? Did he finish his meal and continue his life of depression and paranoia, always wondering when his rivals would dump him in the Pine Barrens? Is it a bleak statement on life as purgatory of uncertainty, led by people who can never change? Is it a hopeful plea that despite it all, we should never stop believing? Every possible answer has its passionate partisans even now, and the eight-year-old episode is still obsessed over like it was the Zapruder film. The Sopranos' finale took a midnight train goin' anywhere, and we’re all still along for the ride.

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